Piecing a Portrait Together: Using a Cabinet Card and Crayon Portrait for Restoration

crayon portrait

Piecing a Portrait Together: Using a Cabinet Card and Crayon Portrait for Restoration

Portraiture has always been — and will always be — about capturing a person. Whether you’re trying to highlight their spirit, a memory, or more, portraiture at its foundation is documenting people in a specific place or time. Today we’re spoiled with technology. We can take a new portrait everyday if we choose, but imagine 100+ years ago. It was a momentous occasion.

Sitting for a portrait defined a chapter in one’s life, usually at a life event. The subject wore their best clothes and finest jewelry. Photography made portrait sittings attainable to everyone, but they were still expensive. Many people only had a few taken during their lifetime. As photography methods evolved, the art of the portrait changed with it. 

The Crayon Portrait

When crayon portraits were at the height of fashion, families would commission photographers to create a crayon portrait from a cabinet card. This was a common practice used to honor the deceased. The portraits were created posthumously to honor their memory and were displayed in their parlor. 

Crayon portraits were lightly exposed and hand-embellished with color. The artist would draw in the latest fashions on their clothing lapels or add items like hairpieces to the portrait. Over time, these portraits fragile paper yellow and fade, becoming brittle and fragile. The charcoal and oils are still strong in detail, but can be easily destroyed by mishandling. 

It’s rare for a person to have the original cabinet card and crayon portrait today. In fact, Mary Lou has only seen it three times in twenty years. The original portraits become lost as people “get an upgrade” in a newer format. Earlier this year, we had a client bring in both the cabinet card and the crayon portrait that resulted in an outstanding restoration. 

The Restoration

crayon portraitOur client brought in a crayon portrait that was mounted to lead. Photographers needed to have a way to secure the paper, and this artist chose to glue it to lead. Everywhere the glue wasn’t evenly applied caused the paper to bubble as the photograph aged. The photo had damage from the adhesives and worse, whenever someone flexed the floppy, heavy lead. 

Before Mary Lou restores a crayon portrait, she always asks if the client has the original. They hardly ever do, but this client surprised us by producing the original cabinet card. Both photographs were beautiful. The cabinet card had a tremendous amount of detail, and the crayon portrait was wonderfully hand-colored. However, the artist lost detail during the reproduction process and creation of the crayon portrait. 

Mary Lou was able to shoot both pieces and combine them into one image. Using the original cabinet card and the crayon portrait allowed us to restore all of the details to her dress, hair, and a locket that isn’t even shown on the crayon portrait. We would have been able to do a fine restoration using the crayon portrait, but the cabinet card gave us context and detail that was not available otherwise. 

Framing & Storing

Large portraits are wonderful, but it can be hard to fully enjoy them in today’s homes. Sometimes, there isn’t enough wall space to put everything you love on display. Our client chose to have the restoration printed at an 8×10 and custom framed for their home. The original was stored in a museum box. 

We chose to frame the piece as an oval, similar to how the original cabinet card was created, by cutting an oval mat. Our client chose an intricate champagne frame that both flattered the young woman and would work well with any interior design palette. The crayon portrait was stored in an archival museum box with metal corners to stabilize and protect the photo from bugs, dust, and more. 

It’s rare to find someone who has the evolution of a portrait in one place. It would not be uncommon for a family to split up the two photographs between siblings or toss one photo and keep the one that they like. Being able to work with both images was a treat as both a restoration expert and a fan of photography history.